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AI is transforming pharma R&D – now it can transform pharma marketing

by Chris Finch

Chris Finch

Artificial Intelligence (AI) describes machines that mimic ‘cognitive’ functions associated with
human minds, such as learning and problem solving. 
AI is being used to augment human decisions, improve imperfect processes and increase human efficiency, with many potential applications across the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries.

In May 2019, Google reported that its AI could detect early signs of lung cancer in CT scans, in some cases identifying cancers missed by trained oncologists. While still early in its evolution, studies like this demonstrate
the life-saving role AI could play.

What’s happening in pharma?

Pfizer, Sanofi and Genentech are just some of the companies exploring how AI can speed up the discovery of therapies for metabolic and immune oncology diseases. The benefits are clear: faster drug discovery, while reducing the cost, time and risk of getting new medicines to market. As we move towards a future of personalised medicine, AI could assist in the identification of suitable patients for each therapy, helping HCPs construct tailored medicine regimes for patients.

AI has a clear role to play in the R&D of medicines, but what could it offer pharmaceutical marketers? The quick wins may come from natural language processing (NLP). NLP is already becoming commonplace in the consumer world in the form of ‘chatbots’, computer programmes that facilitate conversations with users through a web or mobile interface.

Why chatbots?

HCPs and patients want answers to their questions quickly. Chatbots can engage on a 24/7 basis, handling basic enquiries such as dosage or storage requirements, which would allow medical information staff more time to handle more complex questions.

By analysing the questions received, over time chatbots can be trained to answer increasingly complex questions. This data also provides insight into the needs of HCPs and patients which can be used to improve services and also the quality of the answers the chatbot gives.

Many people feel more comfortable talking to a ‘virtual companion’ about sensitive subjects than they do talking to
a human. ‘Woebot’ is a chatbot that uses cognitive behaviour therapy to help people manage their mental health. AI could play a key role in helping patients self-manage their conditions, providing opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to add more value to their support services.

Younger patients are particularly excited about this technology – 82% of 16 to 24 year olds would like to see more use of chatbots in the NHS. Almost 50% of Babylon Health’s patients are aged 20 to 29, illustrating the demand for instant healthcare support from the young adult population.

Are chatbots code compliant?

The adoption of chatbots in the pharma industry has been slow, possibly due to the fear of non-compliance with the Codes of Practice or handling of adverse event reports. Ironically, chatbots may actually reduce pharma’s risk. All chatbot answers can be pre- approved and if a chatbot doesn’t understand a question, it can direct the user to human help. For simple tasks, chatbots remove the opportunity for human error. They can’t go ‘off script’ and won’t ‘forget to respond’ to user enquiries. They also have almost unlimited capacity so can respond to peaks in demand.

Chatbots can proactively signpost adverse event reporting channels, while questions submitted can be automatically exported to pharmacovigilance (PV) teams each day for review and PV identification.

Early successes

In 2018 Teva created Braltusbot, a chatbot for HCPs on their UK Braltus website. Teva also took Braltusbot to HCPs by embedding it in online advertising. This allows HCPs to converse with the chatbot without leaving the website they’re on. These innovative adverts have delivered industry- leading engagement metrics for Teva.

Kim Innes, General Manager, Teva UK and Ireland said: “The experience for a worried HCP must be seamless. ‘Braltusbot’ uses technology to make care better, where and when it matters.”

‘Ava’, a chatbot developed by Norgine, aims to maximise successful colonoscopy rates by providing patients with answers to questions about the procedure and their bowel preparation. A successful colonoscopy may prevent a cancer being missed, so Ava might help save lives!

Kym Jacks-Bryant, Global Digital Marketing Lead at Norgine said: “Norgine is looking beyond standard channels to choose the right technology for each problem we want to solve. We felt a chatbot was the most effective way to provide 24/7 patient support.”


AI is evolving rapidly. The early adopters of this technology can position themselves at the forefront of drug discovery and personalised care. Chatbots present a low risk, low cost way for pharma marketing pacesetters to
carve out a reputation for their brands as innovative, responsive solution providers.

Chris Finch is Managing Director at earthware, a healthcare digital agency specialising in AI and chatbots,

In association with


12th August 2019

From: The Directory


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